The Big Help

Extra training, education help workers stand out

By Sean Teehan
Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2011

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Lisa Nelson already had a bachelor’s degree, five years of experience, and a certificate in biomedical informatics, a growing field that applies information technology to health care. But in 2009, she decided that wasn’t enough and began working toward a master’s degree.

For Nelson, 51, the expense, which would amount to about $35,000, makes sense, allowing her to remain competitive in a job market that increasingly demands more education and higher skills. “In the field that I’m in, having a master’s on your resume matters a lot.’’

Nelson is among many working and midcareer adults pursuing advanced degrees and additional credentials to improve their prospects for promotions, higher pay, and other opportunities. For many professionals, the time and expense of earning a master’s degree can pay dividends over the course of a career; for others, less costly and shorter certificate programs that enhance skills can also lead to advancement.

The path that workers choose depends on their field and ambitions. Career specialists say that master’s degrees are particularly helpful in professions such as business, health care, and education, particularly for those with management ambitions.

In 2009, the median earnings of a worker with a master’s degree were 23 percent above those of someone with a bachelor’s degree, according to the Labor Department. Over the course a working lifetime, an advanced degree can boost earnings by an estimated $400,000 or more, according a study by the census.

Paul Harrington, director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said a master’s is generally more attractive to companies. “Employers understand what the degrees are,’’ he said. “Sometimes educational institutions just say, ‘Here’s your certificate,’ and the employer doesn’t recognize it.’’

Still, for some workers, certificate programs may be a more prudent use of money, said Kathy Robinson, founder of TurningPoint, a Boston career counseling firm. For example, jobs in financial planning, accounting, and insurance often involve a series of well-established tests for which a certificate program could be good preparation.

“Master’s programs are beneficial if someone wants to either go into management or display broad knowledge of a subject,’’ Robinson said. “Certificate programs are generally a plus for people who want to enhance their credentials at a skill level.’’

Judith Comeau is an example. Comeau, 57, a nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, plans to work past traditional retirement age to enhance her pension income, but hopes to find a less physically demanding job than nursing. So, she is earning a certificate in health informatics from Cambridge College.

Comeau intends to use her training to find a job at a software company or consulting firm that specializes in electronic health records. With the federal government requiring all US physician practices to keep electronic records by 2015, Comeau said the combination of computer skills and health care experience could make her an attractive job candidate.

“I knew this was going to be a new field that could open some doors for me,’’ Comeau said. “I’m hoping the certificate program along with my experience and my bachelor’s degree will be enough.’’

People who pursue certificate programs do not necessarily have to stop there. At Boston University’s Metropolitan College, which focuses on continuing adult education, many people use certificate programs as a steppingstone to a master’s.

BU’s Metropolitan College offers 21 certificate programs in which students earn graduate credits that can later lead to an advanced degree. They cost more, of course. Credited certificate classes cost just under $3,000 while uncredited classes typically run around $600 to $900.

“I don’t think the consumer has to decide between one or the other,’’ said Jay Halfond, dean of BU’s Metropolitan College.

This was the path Lisa Nelson took. While designing and testing software at the Wellesley office of Partner’s HealthCare, she began working toward her certificate in clinical informatics though an online course offered by Oregon Health and Science University in 2005. She completed it in 2009, a year after she left Partners to care for an ailing family member.

She then decided to pursue her master’s degree through the Oregon school, and expects to finish this summer. Nelson said the advanced degree will help when she reenters the job market.

When she begins applying for jobs, Nelson will have an answer for prospective employers who ask her what she’s been doing with her time.

“You kind of need something other than watching ‘Jerry Springer’ going into a job interview,’’ Nelson said. “Applying cold in a place where academic credentials are important, [and being] over 50, out of work for three years, you need something to balance it out.’’

Sean Teehan can be reached at